Danish Church Grims: The ghostly guardians of graveyards
On three legs the Helhorse hobbles along
Because he doesn’t have any more;
But those who meet him on their way
Soon hobble down into the graveyard
– St. Blicher (1842)
Hi, everyone! I just wanted to start off by saying thank you to Melanie for letting me do a Halloween guest post on her amazing blog! It’s very much appreciated!
When Melanie first announced that she was accepting guest posts for Halloween, I wanted to dig deep into my Scandinavian heritage and find a Danish creature of the dark to share with you all. The only problem was that all the cool creatures like trolls, Huldra and Nøkken are more common in Swedish and Norwegian myths than Danish folklore. However, I kept digging – determined to find something dark and depraved – and in a dusty corner of the Internet, I stumbled upon Church Grims!
As the little poem above (which has been translated from Danish by yours truly) indicates, church grims are dark creatures that can send you into the grave. Though these creatures are native to Scandinavia, they seem to have spread to the north of England, where stories about these ghostly guardians tell of their fondness for ringing the church bells during dark nights.
Danish church grims are said to be the spirits of animals that were buried alive by early Christians at the site of a new church – how’s that for dark and depraved?!
In some parts of Europe, it was believed that the first creature to be buried in a new graveyard – whether it be human or animal – would haunt the place to keep evil at bay and look after the souls until Judgment Day. To spare loved ones from eternal guard duty, an animal was therefore allegedly the first to inhabit a new cemetery.
It is believed that the animals were buried alive – after having one of their legs hacked off – because the church grim would then exist somewhere between life and death. A three-legged animal would also be a lot easier to bury alive… Early Scandinavian Christians were apparently a superstitious but practical bunch if the myths are true.
Some church grims would also venture into the surrounding towns, where they would show themselves to people who were either about to die or knew someone who would. If the encounter didn’t cost you your life, it could cost you your sanity as the mere sight of a church grim was said to be enough to drive you mad.
Even though church grims come in a variety of shapes and sizes, the most common creatures to haunt the Danish cemeteries were the Helhorse, the Grave-sow and the Church-lamb – yeah, that last one sounds scary as Hel…
Also known as:
The corpse-horse, the church-horse or Death’s undertaker.
The ‘hel’ in helhorse is a reference to the underworld in Norse mythology, where people who didn’t die an honourable death in battle are said to dwell.
The helhorse is described as having three-legs, glowing eyes and the ability to breathe fire. Sometimes its head is missing, though. Its tail and mane are a filthy, matted mess, and it’s so emaciated that it looks like a skeleton. Its appearance is so horrifying that people are said to have died from just the sight of it.
The helhorse in Roskilde:
Legend has it that a helhorse was buried underneath the floor of Roskilde Cathedral, Denmark. The church is the final resting place for 21 kings and 18 queens, which allegedly makes it the only church in the world with such a high number of royal tenants. Apparently, only the best supernatural guardian will do for the Danish royal family!
During dark nights, a helhorse is said to haunt the nearby street ‘Hersegade’ in Roskilde.
Also known as:
The grave-sow was often portrayed as black or red with glowing eyes. Like the helhorse, the grave-sow is sometimes seen without a head. Its back is as sharp as a knife with long, matted bristles. The grave-sow can also suddenly grow to become a giant, frothing beast that will attack humans. If it does attack, the grave-sow will try to slice people in two with its sharp back… Yeah, that’s pretty weird.
The spirits of murdered newborns:
One little piggy went to market, another little piggy stayed home, but the third little piggy became a church grim and haunted the local graveyard – or did it? According to some legends, the grave-sow is not like the other church grims. If some stories are to be believed, grave-sows are actually the spirits of illegitimate babies who were born in secret and murdered by their mothers. They haunt the local cemetery and nearby town, where they are especially dangerous to people with a wallet made from pig’s bladder.
The grave-sow can be traced back to 1587, where a priest writes about a ghostly sow in Copenhagen, which shows itself to people who are about to die.
Also known as: the corpse-lamb
The church-lamb is said to look like any other cute, little lamb. The only indication that you’re in the company of a church grim – and may be about to drop dead – is that Lambie is missing a leg.
A bad omen:
As with the other church grims, the church-lamb is a bad omen. If you happen to meet one, it’s a sign that you or someone close to you is about to die. According to the myths, the lamb could also be seen running up to – or prancing in front of – a house where someone would soon die. However, you know for certain that you’re done for if the little fluff-ball rubs itself against your leg.
So if you find yourself near a Danish cemetery on a dark and stormy night, you might just hear the sound of a three-legged horse hobbling towards you on the old cobbled streets. If you value your life, sanity and loved ones, it would be best to turn around and walk away before you catch a life-altering glimpse of the wretched creature. Though you can’t outrun Death, you may just be able to postpone a meeting with his ghostly undertakers.
Fun fact: Many of you may have heard of the Danish word ‘hygge’, which was recently added to the Oxford Dictionaries, but did you know that it actually means eeriness, uneasy feeling or sinister atmosphere if you put a ‘u’ in front of it? The word ‘uhyggelig’ is therefore also the Danish word for scary, spooky, eerie, bloodcurdling, terrifying, horrifying, alarming, ghastly and… grim.